It’s the first day of our family vacation. Dad and all seven sons have rented an oceanfront house. I comb the beach with a few of my brothers: Bill, Chris, and John. I’m feeling cool, wearing my favorite shirt from CBGB’s, ready to let go of work and reap the rewards of a life well lived.
My brother Bill asks, “What’s new?”
“Well, I just finished my book.”
“What’s it called?” asks Chris.
“Carpe Diem, Manana.”
“What’s that mean?” asks John.
“Seize the day, tomorrow.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Bill says. “Paul, I’m in marketing. People want to buy a book that makes them feel warm and fuzzy.”
I say, “How about Carpe Cockapoo?”
“How many pages is it?” asks Chris.
“About two hundred.”
Bill says, “Two hundred? Who wants to read a book that’s two hundred pages?”
“I think it’s been done, Bill. Why? Are you still reading The Hungry Caterpillar?”
Chris asks, “What kind of book is it?”
“Humor and philosophy.”
John says, “No one reads philosophy.”
“Paul, no one is going to buy a philosophy book that’s two hundred pages with a title in Spanish,” says Bill, the marketing genius who is currently on my calling plan because of his anemic credit score.
“Carpe diem is Latin. Manana is Spanish.”
Bill gets animated: “How are they going to know the book’s in English? People make up their minds in ten seconds. Paul, you have to grab people right away.”
“There are laws against that, Bill.”
“So, what is your philosophy?” asks John.
“It’s about living from your heart, not your head; seeking joy, not results.”
Chris shouts over the pounding waves, “It take two hundred pages to say that?”
“Why don’t you do a survey and ask people if they like the title?” Bill asks.
“Because I love the title, Bill. I wrote this book for me. I don’t want to spend an ounce of time figuring out what other people might like. I’m going to give you guys one piece of unsolicited advice: stop giving unsolicited advice.” As I say this a woman walks by and compliments my shirt.
Bill asks, “What’s your shirt say?”
I tell him, “Carpe diem, manana.”
We all laugh. John asks, “How much are you selling the book for?”
“Why not make it two books and sell them for ten bucks each,” Bill says, demonstrating why his skills pay some of the bills.
“I might,” I say, “or maybe I’ll sell it by the page.”
“How many hours have you spent working on it?” Chris asks.
“I have no idea. All I know is I’ve loved every minute of it.”
I didn’t expect this onslaught, but for the first time I don’t feel belittled, just amused. If Jesus were in my family he would have stuck with carpentry.
My six brothers and I are back to celebrate Dad’s eighty-fifth birthday. And this is how we celebrate. In my family even a walk on the beach is no walk on the beach. This is our first family reunion at the Jersey shore since Mom died eight years ago. Before she died we spent a week at the beach every summer for forty-five years.
The glut of testosterone in my family is overwhelming. That’s why Mom was so important to all of us. When I was four years old playing with matches my pant leg caught fire sending me to the hospital for three months. Every afternoon I had Mom all to myself for two hours. I didn’t want it to be over. The day I got out of the hospital I was caught playing with matches again.
My family tends to be both extremely sensitive and extremely insensitive. Tim, the youngest, put a gargantuan effort into getting this reunion together. He wrote out long lists of things to bring and do. He spent hours filling up his SUV with tents, volleyball equipment, bikes, boogie boards, a poker table, food, a keg, etc. It was so full no one else could fit in the car with him. His enthusiasm morphed into anxiety.
I had offered to make Mom’s coleslaw but made the first batch with what I had available, so it was Stevia instead of sugar and Trader Joe’s mayo instead of Hellman’s. I told Tim I would go to the Acme later and buy the exact ingredients Mom used for the next bowl.
He exploded. “Jesus! Damn it, Paul! Why couldn’t you have done that first? All you think about is yourself. Why couldn’t you make Mom’s coleslaw. That’s such a suckass thing to do. It’s all about you, all the fricking time.”
I was taken aback. In the past I would have remained quiet and convinced myself I was above all this. This time I had to defend myself.
“Tim, just because you put a lot of time into this family reunion doesn’t mean you can be an asshole. Chill out. I will make Mom’s coleslaw.”
“Oh, grow up!” he shouted as he stomped out.
I went to the beach and played with my nieces and nephews. When I came back I ran into Tim.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I’m really missing Mom right now. I was just crying for a half hour. I miss her so much. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for her at the end. I couldn’t stand seeing her in the nursing home like that. I let her down.”
We hug. I say, “Tim, Mom never saw it that way. With Mom we could do no wrong — she loved us all as we are. Every single one of us felt so big in her eyes. Let’s honor her this week and see each other through her eyes.”
Tim nods and wipes a tear away. “Yeah, I love you, man.”
And I say, “Oh, grow up.”